Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

During the 1850’s Turgenev wrote a series of novels and tales which dealt with social themes, a common practice in Russian literature. Turgenev was a progressive liberal in his political and social opinions; he distrusted revolutionaries and reactionaries alike and preferred the path of reform to radical change. He also had a large dose of common sense about human nature and heaped scorn upon theories which seemed to be unrealistic and theoreticians who seemed removed from reality.

In Rudin the author deals with such a theoretician. Rudin preaches theories which lead to an almost utopian society but which are impossible to put into practice. The generation of idealists represented by Rudin wants radical change, but Turgenev believed that actual change could be achieved only in small increments. His belief was based upon two factors: First, the inherent conservatism of human nature resists change unless it comes about in moderate doses; second, large-scale radical change requires such an effort that most people are unable to effect such change. In Rudin both factors are at work: While Rudin can dazzle local society, his ideas are not really accepted except by Natalia and one minor character, the tutor Basistov. Further, the changes envisioned are so fundamentally different from the existing social order that even Rudin cannot act upon them. Thus the necessity of reforming the social order must be trimmed down to fit human capacities.

Turgenev also seems to be taking aim at German Idealist philosophy, which was popular among Russian intellectual circles at that time. Turgenev disliked theories which elevate the rational aspect of the human being and downgrade the nonrational aspects, such as the emotions and the will. In Turgenev’s view, the entire human being has to be taken into consideration when planning change. In Rudin’s case, the absence of willpower is evident; all of his energy goes into thinking about theories of change which are not based upon reality, and reality defeats him. If rational processes are not based upon reality, they lead nowhere.